Teaching kids mindfulness to resist screen urges

Today somebody asked me what one word described a focus I had for 2018.  “Boldness” was the first word that occurred to me regarding being more vocal about what I believe in. “Acceptance” is another word that popped into my head—seeing things as they are, rather than how I wish they were. But what I actually answered was that I want to focus on “begin again.”  For today’s TTT I am writing about meditation, mindfulness and attention—and how they all relate to “begin again” and screen time.

Following the practice of starting each TTT conversation with kids on a positive note about tech, I want to give a shout out to meditation apps. A few years ago my teen son Chase told me about an app called Calm that he used at times to help him de-stress. This year I’ve started using two meditation apps: 10% Happier and Headspace. I have spoken with many high schoolers who are also using these meditation apps, and they tell me the apps help them focus and find calm.

Meditation is the practice of mindfulness which is nothing more than working the bicep of our attention muscle. When we practice keeping our attention on something such as our breath, we can increase our ability to bring attention to the present in general. Becoming conscious of what one is thinking, or experiencing emotionally or physically, is pure gold when it comes to having more agency over our lives.

Being able to consciously stop for a split second and notice what is happening in any moment can help us decide if we want to continue doing what we are doing, or thinking what we are thinking. For example, when I am sitting at a table with friends and having an urge to check my phone I can become conscious of the urge, or not. It is that moment of consciousness (mindfulness, attention, awareness) from where I can respond with a choice: Do I want to give the signal to my friends that I am not truly engaging with them? Do I want to virtually leave where I am?  Or, do I want to stay focused on my friends and simply take a big breath letting the urge to check my phone pass?

Another benefit of meditation is the ability each of us has to activate our parasympathetic nervous system by breathing deeply and thinking primarily about the breath or another sensation such as the feeling your feet or sounds in the room. While working as a physician in an ER, I have helped ease the misery of many people experiencing panic attacks. I use the word “misery” because people having a panic attack can feel absolutely horrible and truly believe they are having a heart attack or some other lethal event. Part of the treatment is to convince the patient to take deep breaths to help activate their natural stress reduction system called the parasympathetic system.

So where does “begin again” come in? It is a common expression used in the meditation world. When the mind wanders during meditation, which it will do all the time, the key is to stay calm and acknowledge that the mind has wandered, and then bring it back to the breath and “begin again.” Recognizing when we are off-course and then gently and calmly bringing the focus back can help in real life.  When we set up goals and then digress, it’s easy to give up completely rather than to calmly remind ourselves to “begin again.” We can use the same skill to prevent getting overly frustrated when we do a behavior that we don’t want to do.  When I unintentionally bark at my son for being on his phone, I apologize for my tone, and I tell myself “begin again.”

Here are some conversation starters on meditation for today’s Tech Talk Tuesday:

  • Do you use any tech/ apps to improve mindfulness/ attention skills?
  • When you think about the words “mindfulness” and “meditation,” what comes to mind?
  • How do you experience urges to be on screens? Could you imagine sitting with the urge and not responding right away?

**In case you missed our last TTT because you were enjoying the holiday, I wanted to make sure you saw the Op-Ed I wrote for CNN.com urging middle schools to adopt an “away for the day” cell phone policy.